Friday 31 July 2009

Book Group's July Dinner

Now, serving courgette soup with courgette and feta bruschetta on the side may not be the obvious choice of dish to serve to someone who "doesn't eat anything green", but it is that time of year that leads to a glut or courgettes and this is a classic recipe which takes care of a such a glut so I had to risk it (particularly as said non-green eater has an alotment.....)

I can however report, that the whole of book group loved the soup, as I suspected they wood as it really is an excellent dish (credit to my friend Liz who cooked it for me some 12 or so years ago as it's been a summer staple ever since). Even our resident green-o-phobe asked me how to make it which has to be testimony to the recipe, so here it is:

Courgette and Cumin Soup

1 Large Onion, diced finely
1 Large Fluffy Potato, diced into 2 cm cubes
3 Large Courgettes, sliced into 3 cm rounds
2 Teaspoons freshly ground cumin (or good quality ready ground such as Seasoned Pioneers)
1 Garlic Clove, minced finely
1 Litre Chicken Stock
100 ml Milk (not skimmed but semi is OK)
Olive Oil
S & P
Chopped Corriander and Reduced Balsamic Vinegar to garnish (optional)

Cook the onion until soft and translucent in a little olive oil - do not allow to colour.
Add the garlic and cumin and cook out the spices for 1 minute - do not allow to burn.
Add the potatoes and the chicken stock - bring back to the boil and then simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the courgettes and milk and continue to cook until the vegetables are completely tender (10 - 15 minutes should do it)
Season generously
Remove from the heat and puree in the pan with a stick blender or transfer to a blender and blend until totally smooth.
Serve hot (with or without the garnish) with fresh bread or corgette and feta bruschetta.

There was also pudding, in the form of a less than successful update of the classic lemon tart, with the addition of an orange caramel topping to turn it into a "St Clement's" tart. However I don't want to start my blogging career with a disaster, so I'll try it again another day and post on the merits good or bad on its second attempt.

Monday 27 July 2009

A Return to The Old Vicarage, Ridgeway

The Old Vicarage at Ridgeway, run by Tessa Bramley, a former telly chef, is currently Sheffield's only Michelin starred eatery, which in a city of around 530,000 people is a pretty poor showing. Our visit there last weekend was our second, the first being some 6 years ago. That visit was my first ever forray into the world of michelin dinning and so there was a huge amount of anticipation on my part and it lived up to my expectations on that occassion in every way, despite us being one of only 2 tables in the dinning room that night.

So, given the opportunity to return again, at someone elses expense, I grasped the chance with both hands but I have to report that my second visit was far less impressive and I was very glad I wasn't actually paying the bill myself.

I'm not sure if it has gone down hill in the 6 years since our first visit, although it was looking shabby around the edges with worn furniture in the lounge, or whether my expectations have just risen given subsequent visits to other great venues like The Ivy but my lasting impression of the evening was one of disappointment.

On the whole, the food was still pretty good, although nothing out of the ordinary and like its surroundings, felt a little dated. I also questionned "local in season asparagus" at the end of July as I haven't seen any English asparagus for a month now and it was everywhere on the menu.

We started, with the customary 'savories' served in the lounge - tiny sweet onion triangles, mini cheese tartlets, marinated olives - all very nice, and then some 70's inspired cheese straws which were dry and bland.

My biggest gripe was the wine list - it may be extensive - Tessa herself boasted that there was over 660 bottles to choose from, but barely any of them were under £50! Now I know it's an expensive restaurant, at £60 a head for 4 courses, and last time we went we paid around £35 for a bottle so knew what we were in for, but for all bottles to start at around £50+ does put pressure on the dinners who have save for such an experience as a special treat.

We were then taken through to the dinning room, and the first thing that hit us was the heat. The Old Vicarage is just that, and a beautiful building it is too, but neither openable windows nor air conditioning on an uncharacteristically hot summer evening and a crammed dinning room do not make for a pleasant dinning experience.

Our first course, a set course, was languistines in an asparagus velouté, apologies for the poor photo but there was too much flash back off the bright white dish. My husband hates shellfood so I got a double bonus of these mouthwatering little morsels which were topped with a tempting mango salsa.

For starters, my husband chose belly pork with more "seasonal" asparagus, a pork and mushroom sausage and smooth and delicious butternut squash puree with softly poached quails eggs. It certainly hit the spot and was one of the more successful dishes of the evening.

I opted for lemon sole, which came sitting on top of a tower of bubble and squeek, with garlic clams, peas and a pea and mint velouté and the now obligatory pea shoot. The fish was perfectly cooked and the clams were a revelation as prior to eating them here I didn't really like them.

For mains, we both opted for meat, beef for me, lamb for him. Again, his was the more sucessful of the two dishes. A delectable slow roast shoulder which had been pressed and cooked with a crisp crust, topped with spinach and slices of lamb fillet. On the side was a potato gratin, girolles and barrel turned courgettes. On the whole a very tasty and considered main. Mine was a little more pedestrian, apart from the unusal little bacon piroshki (dumpling) my steak, slightly rarely than requested, was served with a herby mash that was luke warm at best, with carrots and green beans.

When it came to desserts, my husband opted for the chocolate fondant with homemade custard (the exact same choice as 6 years ago incidentally!) but he is limited by his hatred of fruit a nuts which all the other desserts contained. I had the opposite problem trying to choose between a trio of stawberry desserts, a trio of raspberry desserts (again almost identical to the one I had on my first visit) and a trio of coffee and chocolate so I opted for the latter. The presentation wasn't as elegant as it had been 6 years ago, but the dessert was good - a teardrop of chocolate mousse, a coffee icecream with strange textured chocolate sticks, a tiny bowl of coffee creme brulee which was easily the nicest part of the dessert (and therefore not nearly large enough!) and a strange green sauce that may have been pistachio or maybe mint - it just wasn't distinctively flavoured enough for me or my husband to tell.

We retired back to the lounge for coffee, which was again a shock to the purse strings. 6 years ago, coffee and petit fours came as part of your 4 courses (which was only £45 a head back then btw), now it's an extra £5 a head and the chocolates are no longer home made and were a poor selection that would normally be the ones left in the box....

In total our bill, for 2 people, came to £204. We ordered a taxi, had the rest of bottle of wine re-corked to take home and waited for the taxi to arrive. Our taxi took a while to arrive (well 45 minutes actually) and we were by now the only people left in the restaurant and the fact that we were still there when she wanted to close obviously upset Ms Bramley who made little effort to hide the fact that she was ready for us to go home. Her (very young and slightly over familiar) Maitre D did his best to hurry it along and when it finally arrived it got short shrift from Ms Bramley and almost drove off and left us there. I have to say, this definately left a bitter taste in my mouth on what should have been a wonderful evening. I'm not as keen to make a third visit as I was a second which is a shame, but I do think the Old Vicarage is trading on its star and I believe there are other up and coming eateries in Sheffield now who deserve a visit from the Michelin team such as The Milestone and hopefully there will be others to follow to give Ms Bramley some competition.
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